Books: This Is Your Brain on Music

March 27, 2017

Some weeks ago, I read about BookBub and signed up. I don’t care for reading eBooks, but I thought I might see some deals that would change my mind. So far I haven’t found any that persuaded me to read them on an electronic device (either borrowing my husband’s tablet or reading on the computer monitor). But the lists of books available has made me aware of books I hadn’t heard of, that I then decided to read the old-fashioned way.

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin explores how the brain processes music. It’s more about the brain than it is about music, but it attempts to find answers to questions many of us would not have even thought to ask. How do we tell the difference between one instrument and another playing the same note? What makes your foot tap when listening to music? Why do some kinds of music make us happy while others evoke a feeling of sadness?

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Books: Interrupted Aria

March 20, 2015

Author Beverle Graves Myers combined her love of opera, Italy, history, and mystery in this mystery set in 18th century Venice and featuring an opera singer. Since I have no interest in opera myself, I wouldn’t have gone looking for a book where opera features so prominently.But I did go looking for historical fiction mysteries, and when a more recent title by this author popped up in a list of books at the library, I was interested enough to learn more.

Since I always prefer to start a series at the beginning, I found out that Interrupted Aria was the first of Myers’ Tito Amato mysteries. The reviews at were mostly very positive. And the idea of a mystery solved by a castrato opera singer during the Baroque period is so different from the majority of mysteries out there that I was intrigued. It didn’t hurt any that the book was set in Venice, where I spent one day during my travels around Europe during Christmas break the year I spent studying in Spain.

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Books: The Nine Tailors

September 30, 2014

Having enjoyed Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, I eagerly read some of her other mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Since I like to read books in order, I started with Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. About all I can say about them is that I’m glad I started with one of the later books, after she had developed more as a writer. If I had started with one of those first two, I would have wondered why she was considered such a great writer and looked around for another author to enjoy.

Next I read Gaudy Night, which I enjoyed very much, but I found it odd that the story was told from the point of view of someone else rather than Peter Wimsey. Indeed, he comes into the story very little until late in the book. But of course now I want to know more about what happens to both characters.

First, however, I wanted to check out The Nine Tailors, which came between Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night. Unlike several books I have read recently that were more or less enjoyable but about which I could find little to say (hence the dearth of my blog posts recently), The Nine Tailors got me interested in learning about something I had never heard of before: change ringing.

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Singing shape notes

March 29, 2014

I have occasionally seen songbooks containing shape notes, and wondered what was the purpose of the oddly shaped notes. They’re positioned on the lines and spaces of a staff the same as the musical notation most of us are familiar with, and they have the same characteristics in terms of what distinguishes whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on. That much tells me the pitch and length of a note. So what could the shape represent?

I got to find out today at a shape note singing event held at a nearby church. The program was led by a group called Prairie Harmony, who meet weekly to sing this kind of music. After a brief introduction, we started singing, and spend most of the next three hours singing, one hymn after another. No accompaniment, just our voices singing four-part harmony.

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Job and identity

July 13, 2012

I don’t think of myself primarily as what I do at work. At least I didn’t think I did. If asked how I think of who/what I am, I think about being a mother, a pastor’s wife, and a child of God. Even if someone asks specifically about my job, it’s hard to sum it up in a few words because what I do right now is help in several different areas – areas that will have to manage without my help once my position is eliminated in about a month.

So I was surprised, recently, to realize how much it bothers me to be losing this rather ill-defined set of responsibilities. It’s not just the financial impact and the difficulty of finding another job in this uncertain economy – though it is discouraging not to get responses regarding any of the few jobs I’ve found to apply for. (I did finally get one “you do not meet the requirements of the position” form letter from the corporation I currently work for, regarding a position in another department.)

Suddenly there is a lack of a sense of purpose to what I am doing at work. I no longer feel part of a team that I am trying to help succeed. The co-workers to whom I have mentioned this assure me I am still part of the team and they appreciate the work I do, but the sense of being “in this together” is gone for me. I feel like a temporary employee, someone who is working here for the time being but has no future here.

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A synthesized synthesizer

May 23, 2012

Some Google Doodles are better than others, but today’s is my favorite so far. It is a synthesizer in honor of what would have been Robert Moog‘s 78th birthday (he died in 2005). I’m sure it’s quite simplified in comparison with real synthesizers (doesn’t that sound a bit like an oxymoron?) today, but it’s certainly good enough to have fun playing around.

An article at the Christian Science Monitor explains how to play the Moog Doodle. I was very frustrated when I tried to play it earlier in the day, on a computer where I use Internet Explorer as my browser. I don’t know if the problem was IE, or the settings on my computer, but I couldn’t play a single note. All that happened when I clicked anywhere on the graphic was that it performed a search on “Bob Moog.”

Now I am using Firefox, and it works just fine. (It did take me a few moments to find the link to do the search on Bob Moog, which is to the right of the picture of the synthesizer.) Using the computer keyboard, rather than using the mouse to click on the synthesizer keyboard, makes it possible to play the notes more quickly. But it does require remembering what letters and numbers play what – or (as I do) just playing notes kind of at random.

It’s been a very long time (almost forty years) since I played around with a synthesizer. One of the choices in music class in sixth or seventh grade (I forget which) was a brief course in electronic music. We learned how the synthesizer worked, and got to try using it. I wasn’t interested enough in the subject to try to really understand what I was doing, but I liked being able to produce weird electronic noises.

Today I have a slightly better understanding of what the oscillator controls, filters, and envelope controls do. But I still am more inclined to just play around and enjoy the strange sounds I can make than try to methodically produce any particular kind of sound. If I had lots of time on my hands, maybe I’d try out some of the examples given in the CSM article.

But at heart I like words even better than music. So instead I’m writing a blog post.

Awake, my soul

April 8, 2012

There are many things I like about Easter, but one of the best has to be the glorious music. When I was little, the older children’s choir at our church always sang “In Joseph’s Lovely Garden,” and I always found both the music and words very moving. (Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough for that choir, the music program had changed and that choir no longer existed, so I never got to sing it.)

Once I was old enough to join the adult choir, I got to sing the Hallelujah Chorus for Easter. As the lone high schooler in the group, I struggled to learn the alto part while the adults easily sang through it from many years of practice. Once I had learned it, though, I was disappointed to discover, over the next several years, that most churches do not perform it every Easter, as did the church I grew up in. (Adults in most church choirs seem to consider it too difficult, and I have to admit that in some cases they may be right.)

Even so, there are several wonderful Easter hymns to sing. There are “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” two hymns by Charles Wesley that are so similar that unless I have a hymnal in front of me I tend to intermix the words and music of both hymns. I never heard “Low in the Grave He Lay” until I was a teenager at a fundamentalist church, and I have to admit that it has never become one of my favorites, but it provides an effective contrast between the disciples’ grief, and the joy of the resurrection, that few other hymns do.

Today, at the early service (I am reluctant to call anything at 7 AM a sunrise service) at the Methodist church, we finished with “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Like the Hallelujah Chorus, it speaks more to me of Christ’s Lordship over all than specifically of the Resurrection, but if one is fit for Easter then certainly the other is also. What struck me as we sang it this morning, though, was the first half of the third line: “Awake, my soul, and sing.”

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